Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

5th place: Grad student essay contest — Rebecca Barrett

Vol. 38 No. 01 Jan/Feb 2021

Dangers of mixing religion and government

FFRF awarded Rebecca $1,500.

By Rebecca Barrett

The presence of religion in government has long been contentious. Despite the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” religion has long been creeping into public life. Many politicians are sworn into office on a bible. Many state legislatures, city councils and other political bodies begin their meetings with an “invocation,” usually given by a priest, pastor or minister with an explicitly Christian prayer. Monuments of the Ten Commandments are put up in public buildings. Advocates of religion in public life say that religion has a positive influence on politicians and on the public. They contend religion in government encourages government officials to behave more morally, more honestly and with more compassion. But the whole idea of “religious freedom” and “religion in government” is a misnomer. We are really talking about a specific form of Christianity in government. The evangelical fundamentalists and pundits bemoaning the “War on Christmas” on Fox News do not want just any religion in government, they want their religion in government. The consistent effort to insinuate Christianity into every aspect of public life is not just an annoyance for non-Christians, it undermines religious freedom and chips away at the foundations of our pluralistic democracy.

Proponents of religion in public spaces argue that it is not about promoting Christianity, because these public spaces are open to all religions who want to enter them. But is this actually the case? The Satanic Temple has been a marvelous case study that proves that claims that public spaces are open to all religions equally are false. Founded in 2013, the Satanic Temple has been formally recognized by the IRS as a church and has 23 official chapters in the United States, Canada and Europe. It has applied to have after-school clubs, give invocations at city council meetings, and is suing Arizona to be allowed to put a 9-foot-tall statue of Baphomet next to the Ten Commandment’s monument on the statehouse lawn. Unlike some Christians, it is not trying to be the only voice in the public square. Rather, it only asks to enjoy the same rights Christians do to have its religion acknowledged in government meetings and in public spaces. The ensuing debate is very revealing. Christianity in government proponents who find themselves saying, “Why do these Satanists need to have their religion in public spaces?” must also ask themselves the same question. 

It is clear why freethinkers and people with minority religious viewpoints should be concerned by the incursions of Christianity into public life, but even other Christians should be concerned. This dominance of a particular type of conservative, fundamentalist Christian viewpoint is antithetical to the pluralism that our democracy is dependent on. Christian theocrats claim to be advocating for “freedom” for all religious people, but really it is about power. When public officials give primacy to Christianity in public life, they are knowingly or unknowingly promoting the superiority of Christians above other religions. This has a chilling effect on free speech, as people with other religious viewpoints, or Christians who interpret scripture differently, do not feel welcome in these spaces. Our democracy depends on the ability of all members of our society to voice their opinions, no matter how upsetting to some those opinions may be. When religion and politics mix, a difference of opinion becomes heresy.

If these public spaces could truly be an open forum to all religious and nonreligious viewpoints, I believe we would not have a problem. Unfortunately, the primacy of Christianity in public spaces, in politics and in public discourse is causing the United States to slide toward theocracy.

When Donald Trump stood in front of St. John’s Church holding the bible after having violated the constitutional rights of protesters to free speech and free assembly, he was not just pandering to his conservative Christian base. Trump was telling Americans, and the world, that the unquestionable and unquestioning morality of the Christian faith was on his side. While Trump’s piety is most likely a performance, real politicians are making public policy decisions every day not based on science but based upon religious belief. This debate is not merely academic. It impacts the health and welfare of every American.

Rebecca, 25, attends Emory University. “I have been an atheist and lover of science and reason since age 10. After getting my bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, I decided to get my master’s degree specializing in public health policy. I have a particular interest in criminal justice and prison reform. I am interested in how policy reforms can radically change the justice system, so it can maximize social welfare while still addressing harm.